This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.

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2009 Travels May 26


We left at 8am for the Grawin. Another early start for John! The lure of opal actually had him almost bounding out of bed.

The road past Lorne to the highway was graded yesterday and was great now.

We were at the heaps by 9am.

At the front of the Club in the Scrub

A lot of trucks came in to dump through the morning, including the old red and black one that all the experienced noodlers got excited about. We joined the others around the load as it was dumped, like crows around a rubbish bin. After working on that heap for a while, I think we’d found a couple of good bits.

Went down to Truck to get our lunch about 12.30.

One of the regulars – T – sold John a jar of very nice pieces. I thought he’d brought them out for D to have a look at, but D had decided to have a rest day at camp today. I suspected that might have been related to the presence at camp of a rather attractive young South African backpacker! Our gain. We did some haggling over the price, as expected, and in the end he came down from $300, we went up from $150, and settled on $200. Three of the pieces in the jar had a really good red flash in them.

Opal mining machinery

By mid afternoon we were weary, so drove back to camp, stopping to get firewood along the way.

D seemed to be rather skeptical about our purchase – until he looked at the pieces! He offered to buy a good piece that John had found, but we were not selling.

Both tired tonight, and to bed soon after tea.

At the Grawin

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2009 Travels May 18


There was quite an exodus from the campground this morning. At first I thought it might be because people had come only for the weekend. Later, too much later, I decided it had everything to do with the weather forecast for rain.

After John’s opal seduction of yesterday, I went up to the office and did some negotiating to extend our stay by an unknown time, and pay up at the end of each completed week. Very obliging, they were. The $54 I had paid for our previous extension reverted to part of the next $100 per week payment; couldn’t argue with that.

I was able to do two loads of washing, since there was now no competition for the machine.

Then we left for the Grawin. The drive out was starting to seem quite familiar.

I sat in Truck and knitted while John went noodling up on the heap. D was there too. I went up for a while after we’d eaten the packed sandwiches and mostly just watched the men digging about. They were not finding much.

The Keep Out notice was ignored by everyone.

Today was cloudy, which made it harder working out on the heaps because there was no sunshine to catch a glint in the gravel. John gave it away about 2pm and we drove back to camp.

My washing was dry and I picked it in before the cloud developed into anything nasty.

We went into town late in the afternoon, to the Opal Bin opal gallery and shop. I bought that solid opal pendant that had been niggling away at my mind for the last few days. It came from the Grawin and was a very attractive chunk of black opal. I loved the modern simplicity of the setting. That was it – got my opal! Didn’t want to go looking for any more…..

Talked with D round our campfire for happy hour. He showed us his album of stone work he’d done and John showed him his photo book of wood furniture he’d made. Both were talented, creative guys. D showed us some more of his opals. He had some nice looking pieces. John was not game to show him the jar of pieces he’d earlier bought out at the Grawin, in case D confirmed that he’d been conned.

Typical Lightning Ridge…….

There was quite an ominous cloud build up through the afternoon. During the night heavy rain set in. For once, the forecast was right, it seemed.

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2009 Travels May 15


This morning, I managed to sew a complete patch before John was up and about – and there were five pieces of varying sized material in a six inch square patch, to be hand sewn together, with tiny stitches, so it wasn’t done quickly.

We left at 11am, for the Grawin. Took the back way – the gravel road from town that came out to Lorne, then continued on to meet the highway opposite the Cumborah road. It was the short way to go for us.

The drive out to the Grawin was pleasant enough for it not to matter that we were doing it so soon again. I found myself looking at the farmland – and the bush – that we passed, and wondering if there was opal to be found under there? Given the history of subsequent fresh finds in these parts, it could be possible that there were new fields yet to be unearthed? But I guess modern geological surveying methods are much more able to detect likely opal bearing areas, so probably the areas ignored were for good reason.

We parked amongst the trees by the Waste Dump. John got out and exclaimed “I’ve got a flat tyre!” The rear diver’s side was leaking – we could hear it going down. It wasn’t totally flat, yet, so it must have just happened. We had hit a couple of gutters in the track a bit hard. We changed it, finding that the air was coming from a fracture in the rubber. This created a discussion about whether the tyres should be deflated a bit on these hard, stony roads. It was not usually our practice – and “expert” opinions differed. I remember Adam Plate, of the Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta, telling us the first time we went up that way, not to run tyres softer than usual, except on sand.

Then we finally got up on to the heap. There were lots of other noodlers there today. I got sick of it quickly, and went back down to Truck, for lunch and to read and do some bird spotting.

Noodling on the waste dump, in fresh “biscuit” coloured heap

John came down later. for lunch, then went back. I went up later to take some photos, to find that most of the others had gone. Maybe because it was Friday, to get a head start on the night’s festivities?

John was working alongside a tourist, like ourselves, and a local. The latter was in his 30’s, had been a shearer, did some boxing around the country circuits, then had a stroke. Now, he noodled – and drank. He was doing both together, up there. When we drove away, he was just sitting on the front of his old car, all alone, drinking – a forlorn, sad, picture. I guessed there were a lot of hard luck stories to be found around here.

The tourist was out from the Ridge, for the day, like us. He was new to opals and noodling, and had left his ailing wife back at their van. He was dealing with some big problems and seemed pretty timid. He found a nice piece of opal on the heap and was soooo excited – it was nice to see him happy.

The little pile the men were working on was interesting, so I joined in for a while. I might have found a few small, good bits – I found it hard to tell if they were worthwhile.

We left at 4pm and got back to camp an hour later. The place was yet more crowded. A couple of camper trailers had set up quite close to us, and the Hacienda was still occupied.

Truck parked by the Hacienda cottage at Lorne

I had a bit of a chat with one of the camper trailer men. He was rather into the “I am the greatest travel expert” mode – one of those who had to go one better than anything anyone else said. But credit where it was due, and he had been to some interesting and out of the way places, like Old Doomadgee and Massacre Inlet. I gained some street cred by even knowing where these were, and by having also been to Massacre Inlet and Old Doom. He didn’t have it all his own way!

John had flathead and fries for tea. I only had fries, because the label had come off the fish pack in the freezebox, and when I went to cook it, there was only one piece!

We sat around the campfire after tea, for a while. It was so pleasant not to have TV!

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2009 Travels May 13


Having plans for an outing today, we both made a reasonably early start to the day.

In town, we refuelled, and bought a newspaper, in order to see details of yesterday’s federal budget. It did not look as if we would be affected in any great way by its measures.

Whilst in town, John received a phone message, telling him that he had been elected to the Selection Committee of our local bowls club. He was pleased. So was I – maybe thinking about that would take his mind off buying a claim?

Our destination was the Grawin opal fields, some 66kms by road from Lightning Ridge.

The sealed road went to the hamlet of Cumborah, through grazing country with some lovely areas of cypress pines. Cumborah was sad, a nearly dead settlement. North of there, the road became gravel. We had no trouble finding the turnoff to the Grawin, about 10kms north from Cumborah.

The Grawin area began to be mined for opal at a similar time to Lightning Ridge – about 1900. It consists of three parts, really: Grawin to the north, Glengarry in the middle and Sheepyard Flat to the south of the mining area. The Glengarry section really got going in the 1970’s, and the Sheepyard from the mid 80’s.

The Grawin area. Big waste dumps can be seen in centre of photo

Like most Australian opal fields, the level of activity waxed and waned depending on the value of opal, and external circumstances like World Wars. Changing technology also affected the extent of mining. Today’s equipment, whilst it might seem a bit makeshift and primitive to we observers, is far advanced on the original pickaxes for digging and candles for lighting underground.

Our first stop was at the first manifestation of the fields that we came to – the “Club in the Scrub”.

This was the clubhouse and licensed premises for a nine hole dirt “green” golf course and general watering hole. The club was very quaint and quirky. Rough logs and corrugated iron featured prominently in the construction. After a bit of a browse around, including at the displayed notices, I bought a fridge magnet and a mud map of the fields, made by a local, and laminated. For this, I donated $5 to their SES. The lady behind the bar assured me that we would still get lost!

It was definitely not that easy to navigate around the diggings, even with map. We eventually got sort-of oriented, and able to guess at which was the main track amongst the myriad that went every which way. The  surface was all the white claystone that typified the opal areas here.

The white dirt of the Grawin – and the main road through it

We passed lots of claims, some with structures on, some just marked by the assorted apparatus that lifts the dirt from the shafts below. Much of the gear on the claims was improvised – typical of opal fields. There was little effort to put any barriers around some of the holes – it certainly was not an area one would want to wander about on a dark night. I wondered how many diggers, staggering home after imbibing too much with their neighbours, had done a disappearing act down an unguarded shaft.

A current mine, with apparatus to raise dirt from below, to dump truck

The meandering track brought us to two huge waste dumps where it was obvious, from parked cars and people around, that there were several “noodlers” in action. Noodling is digging in waste dirt discarded by the miners, in search of opal they may have missed. In some mining areas, doing this on the waste deposited beside individual mines is likely to provoke a very unfriendly reaction from the miner, but here the big waste dumps were communal and noodling appeared to be tolerated.

One of the massive waste dumps, showing ramp that dump truck used to get to the top

After we ate our packed lunch sandwiches, sitting in Truck and watching the activity from afar, John decided to join the noodlers and walked up to the top of the pile. He was immediately offered a collection of opal pieces in a jar, by one noodler – and bought the jar! For $100. I didn’t know whether or not he was conned – there were some bits in there with flashy colours. But, on balance of probability, I reckon the guy picked him straight off as a soft touch. He reckoned there was a month;s worth of work in that jar. If that was the case, then he was hardly going to be living the high life on the proceeds.

Two trucks churned their way up the dirt ramp to the top of the heap, to dump their dirt. One was immediately set upon by the majority of the noodlers, as the waste came out of the tipper. They said it was the “right colour”, plus, I was sure, they knew whose dirt it was and that the fields’ grapevine had them “onto colour”.

On the top of the waste dump, with truck tipping a new batch of discarded dirt

I picked up more terminology out there today, than opal. When I joined John at scratching in the dirt, I did find a few pieces of potch – opaque opal-like stone without any flashing colour in it. It might be useful for John to practice on, if he ever decided to try cutting himself.

As we dug around in the heaps, not really knowing what we were doing, got talking to a young man nearby, doing the same. He told us to look for the pale white heaps (which they mostly all looked to me) or, best of all, the “biscuit” colour and structure. This was the layer down there, adjacent to the opal bearing one, and sometimes contained missed opal. He found a very nice chunk in the same heap as we were digging in, while we were there. He also told us that the newest area of diggings – a rich one – was just near this dump heap. I guessed that made it attractive to the full time noodlers.

After an unproductive couple of hours of this, we moved on around the tour route on our mud map of the fields.

At Sheepyard Flat we admired the War Memorial – very nicely done. I was to find that there were a number of Vietnam War veterans on these fields. The Sheepyard Inn was another unique place – casual the order of the day. We partook of a ginger beer each – cost $5 each, though!

Continuing on we passed, but did not stop at, the third of the licensed premises in this area, the Glengarry Hilton, so called. Three drinking places in a relatively small area – maybe there were a lot more miners living out here than was immediately evident?

In our time out there, we only saw a handful of people who appeared to be tourists like ourselves. It certainly was not over run with visitors. This might have been due to the unsealed roads, but maybe also because tourists were satisfied with their experiences at Lightning Ridge and assumed the Grawin was more of the same. We did not find this to be the case, and would tell our friends coming this way that they must make time for a day trip out to the Grawin.

We got back to camp about 4.30pm, after stopping by the roadside to collect firewood.

Tea was soup and salads, after which we sat round our campfire, mulling over the day and agreeing that it had been most interesting and enjoyable.

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2009 Travels May 10


It was another normal morning at our establishment, with one of us sleeping much later than the other, and one of us reading and sewing outside the van, in the morning sun.

I received a Mothers Day text from daughter.

We drove into town, in time for lunch at 12 at the Bowls Club, resplendent in our “whites”.

The dining room was very crowded. The lunch event was obviously popular. I guessed there were not a whole lot of dining options in town. However, no other bowlers were evident. You know that feeling of being the odd ones out, and wondering if you have made some sort of mistake?

The $15 lunch was a buffet. There was a variety of salads, most heavily mayo’ed. The grain bread was excellent. There were some casseroles; I passed on those, which may have been pre-cooked then reheated. My gut doesn’t handle reheated protein well. There were desserts too – pavlova, mud cake, fruit salad. I had never seen chocolate mousses disappear so fast!

After lunch we made our way out to the bowls greens. Aha! THAT was where all the bowlers were. Given their absence at the lunch, I wondered what they knew about the food that we didn’t? But, to be fair, the final games of a big weekend tournament were in progress, occupying many of them.

Our social bowls started nearer to 2pm than the supposed 1pm. The game was meant to be a fun event, with winners decided by the  draw of the results cards afterwards, not by actual scores. The entry was free – and with dinner thrown in! So that’s what the other bowlers knew. Meal after the game. …

Some of the other participants had not played before, which made things “interesting” but light hearted.

After the game, we went inside for drinks. We sat with L and W, who were good fun. L was a jeweller’s widow. She used to be an excellent opal cutter, before her hands clawed. Like many on the opal fields, she was of European origin, with a fascinating French accent.

Opal cutting is a valued skill. Anyone can learn the basic techniques, but it takes real skill to work out the best way to sand off unwanted surrounding rock and potch, to bring out the best colour in the stone, without shattering the opal.

Opal that has been cleaned up but not yet cut for gems

We also met P, who was a psychologist with the area health service; he had “owned” a claim since he was nine years old! He lived out on it, but was too busy to do much mining.

We sat through the “market night”. One bought a range of tickets; then numbers were drawn. If your number was drawn, you went out and chose from a very impressive array of prizes, lined up on tables at the front. There were items like an electric BBQ, a heater, electric blanket – substantial stuff. Presumably local businesses had been generous in supporting the cause. I think they must have drawn about forty numbers in all. We didn’t win anything, but L got a toaster and jug package.

We then moved into the dining room for dinner, which was roast lamb and vegies, followed by sticky date pudding. It was very good – we hadn’t eaten so well in one day for ages.

All the women present were given a box of chocolates and a raffle type ticket.

L’s team won the bowls card draw – she received a bottle of port for that. In the free raffle, I won a potted chrysanthemum. I am not really into travelling with plants, and was able to swap it for L’s port – she said she had lots of the latter at home. Apparently it was a usual bowls prize. That alone said something about the nature of Lightning Ridge!

We made an arrangement with L to meet at the social bowls day on Tuesday, so she could try out John’s bowls. She was looking for a new set and his were the modern variety starting to be adopted.

John got talking to a man who currently worked a claim. He told us that the opal fields immediately around Lightning Ridge were pretty well worked out, and that most of the currently operating claims were now in the out of town areas like the Grawin, Glengarry, Sheepyard Flat and Coocoran. He told John we absolutely must go and look at these outer areas.

Sat view of the Lightning Ridge area.Light patches are opal diggings.The Grawin is NW of Cumborah; Coocoran to the west of the Lake

John also talked to another man, who told him about picking up abandoned claims for $2000. I could tell that John was about to become hell bent on becoming an opal miner! I was going to have to have stern words along the lines of: Hey. Stop. Think. WHY are these claims abandoned? Could it be something to do with having no opal left? Maybe also a reminder that he does not like underground….

He chatted with a couple who came from Victoria’s Goulburn Valley – almost “home”. They spent half of each year – the cooler months – on their claim here, and summer at home. Best of both worlds. I got the impression they were not really miners – it was more a lifestyle thing, like a holiday house. Now that I could understand.

All in all, it was a great day and evening, much better than I had expected. We had never before encountered such hospitality at a Bowls Club. It was a huge club – a typical NSW one with lots of poker machines. They hold  big tournaments here, through the year, with thousands of dollars in prize moneys. There was a similar free dinner and fun event for Fathers Day.

Son had texted whilst I was bowling, then phoned when we were back at the van, about 8pm. So i’d had contact from both my children. Just about a perfect Mothers Day, after all.